My Google Alerts are now full of nonsensical items on behalf of a Trafficking Awareness Month in the USA. I first discovered Awareness Raising when I began to study assumptions held in the world of helping. One holds that certain social problems are ‘hidden’, and ‘hidden populations’ are great favourites amongst sociologists (who can then claim to have located and revealed them). Of course, most of us do know marginalised groups exist; we see them every day and may belong to them ourselves. But the idea that we cannot see social ills creates the need for self-identified experts to inform us about them. Hiding has become a term especially used about undocumented women and under-18-year-olds who sell sex.
Here the theory is played out with a message placed on a city bus so that a lot of random people see it (thus having their awareness raised). The term is not a synonym for consciousness-raising, whether yogic or feminist (Wikipedia is wrong) but a strategy with concrete techniques used first by social-policy adepts and activists and then spread in mediocre news-production and social media. See the example of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 8) for more explanation.
Awareness is by definition superficial and can only become deeper if followed up by curious investigation: wondering, reading, critique, talking with those more experienced, cogitating over ambiguities. But with awareness-raising as goal, previously uninformed audiences tend to accept whatever messages claim to be the truth, so that when campaigners are unprincipled (as many anti-traffickers are), audiences are misinformed. Misinformation – or deliberate disinformation – usually comes in the form of over-simplified categories that reduce human complexities to a couple of black-and-white labels, accompanied by unfounded statistics. I often meet people now who, when they discover what my work has been, dismiss it with a smug claim that we have a ‘difference of opinion’. I object: my knowledge is based on research and analysis over many years, not an awareness campaign disseminated on facebook or an online petition, not the acceptance of heavily biased or badly researched media articles.
This field is not easy to comprehend but fraught with subtleties and apparent contradictions. My work began with my own questions, because I didn’t understand 20 years ago and I knew I didn’t. Over time I came to focus on those who position themselves as called to rescue women they call victims who, in large numbers, didn’t (and still don’t) identify that way (which doesn’t mean nothing is wrong or everyone is happy). I created the term Rescue Industry after years of study to describe non-self-critical helpers who assume they Know Better than the rest of us how we all ought to live. In my book Sex at the Margins I wrote of trafficking as a new keyword (thanks to Molly Crabapple for the tweeted photo). Creating this keyword was an essential step towards the Rescue Industry’s becoming able to engage in awareness-raising: you can’t put snappy messages on buses until you have snappy concepts (for theory-mavens I am talking about an apparatus of governmentality).
Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigning have produced a generation of people who believe the facts have been established long since about who is Good and Bad, who is Victim and why and how to solve the problems. Most folks are not, of course, particularly interested in the details or nuances to the general narrative. At the same time some opposition campaigners also over-simplify in an attempt to reach uncritical audiences, by invoking civil liberties or freedom of choice and ignoring complexities.
Here’s awareness-raising on a highway before a Super Bowl in Texas. Note this is not only about the message but the medium, the board-in-your-driving-face. Speeches and presentations given by social workers, politicians, academics and others at meetings and conferences do not qualify. Website mission statements do not qualify. You have to go out into the world and Do Something broadly educative. I recall when I worked amongst undocumented migrants detained at the Mexico-US border how we dreamt of travelling south to hold posters up in bus and gas stations warning of certain, er, problems ahead.
The following Google Alerts for 6 January 2015 come from around the US; town-names show how awareness-raising as a tactic has spread: Fargo, Spartanburg, Fond du Lac, Fresno, Duluth, Houston. Despite varying immigration and cultural histories, all conform to and reproduce the dominant confusing and dysfunctional message.
“Human Trafficking” 6 January 2015
Official Reports Progress in Awareness of Human Trafficking
Department of Defense WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – Defense Department awareness of slavery and human trafficking issues is paying off significantly because of …
Human trafficking awareness events planned in Fargo
INFORUM FARGO – An event scheduled here Sunday in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day will feature a panel discussion with local experts …
Ongoing human trafficking cases
Daily Republic Mitchell SD
Trina Nguyen and Loc Tran face federal human trafficking charges and other charges after allegedly operating a brothel in Minot, N.D., and then, after …
SC prosecutor discussing fight against human trafficking
The State Columbia SC The State Wilson’s office says he plans to talk about the need for new legislative tools for fighting human trafficking. Benton plans to talk about how some of those …
Human trafficking: How one Minnesota girl was lured into ‘the game’
Duluth News Tribune Duluth MN It was the early 1980s, and the evolving Block E of downtown Minneapolis had life, with hustlers and prostitutes interspersed with the suit-and-tie …
Human trafficking event held Saturday
Fond du Lac Reporter Fond du Lac WI A presentation about human trafficking will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 10 at Fond du Lac Public Library’s Eugene G. McLane Meeting Room.
Human trafficking hidden but present in Upstate
Spartanburg Herald Journal Spartanburg SC January is human trafficking awareness month, and statewide and local events are scheduled to bring attention to the issue that exploits about 21 …
Life after human trafficking
Houston Chronicle Houston TX Life after human trafficking … Today she’s a 33-year-old college junior with a 4.0 GPA — living proof that the victims of human trafficking can recover.
Fresno meeting set to discuss human trafficking, domestic violence
Fresno Bee Fresno CA Centro La Familia Advocacy Services will host “A Community Convening: Conversations Not Heard” to raise public awareness of human trafficking …
Then, of course, there are ads aimed at victims themselves, which are more properly understood as outreach. The latest generation of these show clearly that objects of help may not know they are victims.
In the midst of writing this post I listened to Marvin Gaye’s early rendition of I heard it through the grapevine. Grapevines pre-date awareness-raising.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist